Unpacking the Impostor Syndrome

How do we free our inner child of self doubt?

By Dulce Zamora

When I was a child, I received a Golden Dream Barbie doll for Christmas. She had honey-blonde tresses that could be styled with ease, thanks to gilded highlights made of wire. True to her brand, everything about her gleamed gold: a disco pantsuit, sheer capes, a clutch purse, strappy heels, hair accessories, and jewelry. She was the epitome of everything I thought I wasn’t. She was flawless.

My family and I immigrated into the United States in the 1980s. My parents were successful professionals in the Philippines. When we first arrived on America’s shores, Dad found it challenging to get jobs that matched his qualifications as a bank executive. He was told he lacked local experience. Mom stayed at home with us kids at first.

Money was tight for a while. We were one of those low-income families that received a complimentary bag of groceries from time to time, free school lunch, and a Head Start preschool education for my little brother. A few times, we also got the toys that other kids no longer wanted.

When I received Golden Dream Barbie as a present, I was very careful with her. Every time I played with my doll– which wasn’t a lot — I made sure to put her and her accessories back into the original package, complete with the twisty ties. Even when I parted with her in my twenties, she still looked brand new, shimmering in her box.

Why didn’t I play with my Barbie doll? Was it because a new toy was a luxury, so I didn’t want to spoil it? Was I scared to be a part of something so perfect and out of my league? These are the type of questions I recently asked myself as I unpacked decades of self-censored joy.

Self-Doubt, Squared

It may seem like I’m making a big deal out of nothing, but a lot of nothings can add up. I was once in the Rhetoric Honors Program at the University of California at Berkeley. I finished researching my thesis early on, and checked in with my advisor often. Everything was going well. All I had to do was write my thesis paper. I loved to write, and had plenty of time to do it. Yet, I didn’t finish the paper. I still graduated with bachelor’s degree, but not with honors.

Why did I deprive myself of honors? A little voice inside me said: I’m not good enough. If people got to know me, they’d know I wasn’t really that smart. I got into Berkeley only because I was lucky, a hard worker, or a token minority student.

Even when I made notable achievements — like landing jobs as a writer or producer at national news organizations, writing three books, or earning awards for my work — I felt like luck and hard work, not me, were the winners.

I’m hardly alone in battling self-defeating thoughts. According to a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, at least 70% of people experience at least one episode of the impostor phenomenon in their lifetime. The impostor phenomenon happens when people don’t think they deserve their accomplishments or good fortune. They’re often worried that people will discover their deception. They don’t take credit for their successes.

This phenomenon affects people of all ages, genders, occupations, and cultures. Many well-known names have admitted to questioning their achievements. They include Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Awkwafina, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Maya Angelou, Cheryl Sandberg, Serena Williams, Howard Schultz, and Michelle Obama.

What Causes Impostor Syndrome?

Experts say a number of factors can contribute to Impostor Syndrome.

  • Personality traits such as anxiety, perfectionism and neuroticism.
  • Family values, family dynamics, and parental rearing style. These can affect how people react to success and failure.
  • Roles with high expectations. People who are called experts, natural geniuses, and/or superwomen/supermen experience extra pressure to excel. They can develop a fear of failure and can be greatly affected if they don’t meet expectations.
  • Environment. The culture at work, social groups, and communities can foster self-doubt.

In a 2018 Time.com article about impostor syndrome, Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, said: “A sense of belonging fosters confidence. The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.”

If unchecked, the phenomenon can shut out feelings of positive wellbeing. This can contribute to anxiety, depression, and a general dissatisfaction with life.

Glimmer of Hope

The good news is that imposter syndrome is not a life sentence. Researchers say most people actually end up achieving many things. They either over-prepare to make up for their perceived shortcomings, or procrastinate then rush to get the task done. The trouble is, people usually attribute accomplishments to luck or hard work.

I cringe at the mountain of self-doubt that I heaped upon myself. Time and time again, I turned into a little girl who received a wonderful gift, but did not permit herself to truly enjoy it. Where did that leave me? Boxed into my own self-limiting beliefs.

To be fair, as noted with people who experience impostor syndrome, there were many social, cultural, environmental, familial and personal experiences that contributed to my self doubts. Regardless, I’ve resolved to stop boxing myself in. Doing this hasn’t served me or my community, at all.

I am reminded of one of my favorite poems by Marianne Williamson.

We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.

What if I believed I was worthy of love, happiness, and success? What if I gave myself permission to play with that Barbie doll, to pursue honorable projects, and to acknowledge my accomplishments and awards?

I’ve been working on overcoming self-doubt for many, many years. The effort has involved peeling off layer after layer of external and internal messaging that I was “not good enough.” One time, with a friend’s encouragement, I visited my younger self in my mind, and told her not to worry.

“You will do well,” I assured my inner child.

Likewise, I also imagined a visit from my older, more experienced self.

“Keep going,” the more mature me said. “Don’t forget to play.”

There is so much more to life outside of the limitations we set for ourselves. Perhaps it’s time we explored what self-love can bring us.

© 2020 Windswept Wildflower

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